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A guide to buying an mp3 multimedia player

Portable music and video today and the future. What the trends are.

With digital music coming, the mp3 player has taken the high ground in digital music and video entertainment. So, what exactly are we talking about? MP3 is a term that relates to a standard of digital audio processing that allows digital audio files to be compressed in size and therefore made more portable. The mp3 player today however, is much more than simply a device that plays only mp3 standard audio files. It is now a universal term that includes players of all forms of portable audio formats and is used to identify a wide range of hardware from an equally wide range of player manufacturers, and a plethora of websites offering downloadable media. Clearly it is not so much whether you will listen to digital music and watch digital video, but the type of player that will best suit your purposes.

What is your passion? How you want to consume your media?

There are a number of important issues to consider when choosing the type of player that will suit your requirements best. At the heart of this is the question of how you want to consume your music and video product. With the digital music revolution come three basic options. You can choose a player that has a hard disc for program storage, one that uses flash memory (memory sticks, flash cards and the like) or one that uses standard CD format with music stored in mp3 or other compressed formats. There is no one universal method that will suit everybody. Rather there are pros and cons for each, with different manufacturers offering different features, design, battery life, useability and prices.

The other really important development that may affect how you choose the right player is the fact that the online music and video programming is now widely available from all manner of sources, from artist direct through to iTunes. As the protection of artist's and producer's digital rights becomes more widespread, you can expect media players to be more able to share the different media formats and protection. reducing risk both for you and the artists involved.

The Hard-Drive Option.

The crucial decision is how much memory. Hard-Drive players, such as Apple's iPod, are available with up to 100GB of storage (but this could change in any nano-second). While they are physically small, Hard-Drive players are not the lightest. But 60 GB allows about a thousand hours of mp3 music. At around 4 minutes per song, that's about 15,000 songs. If being able to store a lot of songs is important to you, then you should consider the Hard-Drive option. Of course video program is more memory consumptive, and if you need to store large video programs then a Hard-Drive option makes good sense. A Hard-Drive player has a small computer hard-drive installed inside, so it has moving parts and can be damaged by shock, severe magnetic fields and too much sun. Some can also be quite bulky which means that a hard-drive player may not ideally suit a jogger, but if you fly Sydney to London on a regular basis, then it could be the solution. Hard-Drive players also tend to have a shorter battery discharge life than flash memory devices.

The Flash Memory Option.

Flash memory offers some outstanding benefits. At the time of writing, flash memory goes up to 4GB, which allows about one thousand mp3 songs. When you consider the average radio station's active play list is less than two hundred songs at any given time, and shrinking, a 1,000-song capacity is quite substantial. In current recording terms, that could be as many as 60 to 100 albums. Moreover, flash memory has no moving parts and so can withstand slightly rougher treatment. And players can be considerably smaller and therefore more portable. Additional benefits come in the form of small, yet quite powerful storage media and astounding battery life.

The CD Media Option.

Following on from the Sony Walkman phenomenon, portable CD players have been around for some years. Now however, portable CD players can play mp3 and other compressed audio formats as well as standard CDs. Using this technology, you can download your music to your computer and burn it onto a CD in mp3 format, and play it in your portable player. You don't need to concern yourself with storage capacity. A single CD will hold 700 MB of music, or around 175 songs. These players are limited in their other functions, but are often cheap to buy. However because they use CD technology (and therefore have moving parts), they are susceptible to shock and it can be quite inconvenient to carry a whole bunch of CDs around if you need a large library of music on your jogging circuit.

Controlling what you hear.

Okay, so we've sorted out how you want to consume your music and now you have some leaning as to which type of player is going to suit you based on its media system and storage capacity. But there is still more for you to consider. There are two aspects to being able to control your audio through your mp3 player. One is its connectivity. In the first instance, you need to be able to download the music you want to hear in the format that's going to suit your player, and vice versa. So first you need to make sure you choose a player that is compatible with the source. (Frankly, you can't go far wrong with iTunes and most players, but there are many other options, including Virgin, Napster, Sony, all of which offer different media options.) Second, you need to have a simple connection between the computer you download your program onto and your portable mp3 player. Most players these days use USB serial interfaces. But there are also fire wire and wireless options. You also may want to consider whether you want to receive FM radio on your mp3 player, and whether you want to use your mp3 player to record program (much like a cassette player). These features are available on some players, but not on all. Furthermore, the recording options may be limited. A player that can record only wave files will limit your recording capacity. (One minute of stereo wave file is about 10 megabytes, compare with one megabyte in mp3 format.) There has long been the promise of music kiosks where you can simply charge a flash memory stick with new songs. Perhaps we will see this in the coming year.

The second aspect to controlling what you hear is the audio environment itself. You connect your mp3 player to your physical self through earphones, or you can plug it into your computer, your hi-fi system, and even use a wireless connection in your car. Not surprisingly however, one of the weakest links in the personal portable mp3 player is the earphone set. Most players come with a set of earphones, usually in the 'bud' style. Not everyone is comfortable with this style of earphone, and you may want to consider the earphones you use. A good quality set of earphones, (such as Shure's E4c) will enhance your listening experience for a variety of reasons. For prolonged listening, earphones need to be comfortable, both in a physical sense and in an auditory sense. Poor quality earphones are often uncomfortable to wear and deliver poor quality sound that can cause ear fatigue and subsequent long-term damage. Cheap earphones are flimsily constructed and any strong tug on the cords will cause the signal cables to break down. You also need to check out what controls the player provides you over the sound quality, and how easily they are accessed and understood. At minimum, you need volume and possibly some tonal controls, as well as track management and good visible indicators of the status of your player.

Size does matter.

The importance of weight, physical dimensions and battery life cannot be understated. Most manufacturers promote a battery life. But like mobile phones, the product usually does not prove the claim. Why is this? It often depends on how the battery life is measured. In a laboratory for example, the test may be carried out with minimal human interference. But on the jogging path, every time you touch a control, you are using some power from the battery, whether it's just to illuminate the screen, or make adjustments to the sound quality. Battery life can be compared between manufacturers to give you some idea of how different players compare, but don't rely on the manufacturer's claims to be accurate under the conditions you will be using your player. You may use your player for a few hours each day, and then recharge every night. In such a case, extremely long battery discharge life may not be too important. But if you are trekking across the Nullarbor Plain and won't see a power point for several days, battery life is going to be critical.

Weight is also another factor. Remember, devices with Hard-Drive storage weigh more and are bulkier than devices with flash memory. CD devices need to be at least as big as a CD, and many are not much bigger. Consider how you are going to wear the player on your person, and be sure it will be comfortable.

And there are accessories

There are a lot of technical things associated with audio devices. Unless you're an audiophile, you may have a limited interest in such things as the signal to noise ratio (the amount of noise that is generated outside of the signal by the players amplifiers). The fact is, most players on the market have acceptable sound fidelity and the biggest weakness can often be found in the headsets and loudspeaker systems that they are connected to. You may also want to consider the accessories that are available, either included with the purchase or available separately. This may include power adaptors, carrying cases, additional memory, car adaptors and other software options to give you access to a wider range of entertainment and information. helps you compare the different value offers from different brands in terms of specifications and accessories. You can also compare prices from hundreds of different brands and vendors.

About the author:

Kevin Price for comparison online shopping service